Another year of tennis begins Down Under and, comfortingly, much remains the same, really. The players have been running up and down sand dunes in the off-season to prepare for the sweltering conditions that will be marginally less unpleasant than the inane banter between the Australian ‘commentators’. But, more importantly, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal remain the two best players in the world. The Poms are still waiting, hoping, praying that Andy Murray can win a major. And Lleyton Hewitt is still insisting he can beat anyone and get back into the top 10. The only difference this year is that Australia actually has a woman genuinely capable of winning a Grand Slam.
it‘s all about Rafa…
Spaniard Nadal arrives in Melbourne as the world’s number one player and the holder of the three other Grand Slam titles after dominating 2010. Not since Rod Laver in 1969 has one man held all four titles, so Rafa will have achieved something truly momentous if he wins a second Australian title to complete his set. The nigglers will point out that Nadal won his last three Grand Slams without facing Roger Federer, beating relative lightweights Robin Soderling, Tomas Berdych and Novak Djokovic in the three finals. A fourth such ‘free pass’ seems unlikely.
…but don’t forget Roger
Six months ago, Federer looked spent, finished. But he has now won four of his past five tournaments, including the end-of-season tour finals in London at the end of 2010, when he beat Nadal in the final. How fitting it would be if, even in the twilight of his career, Federer finds a way to deny the man who has usurped him at the sport’s summit. Like Muhammad Ali coming off the ropes to beat a younger, more powerful George Foreman in Zaire in 1974, if Federer can produce one last famous stand, it will add yet another layer to his already glittering legacy. And, really, the script demands it.
Any chance for Andy?
By now, a Grand Slam can’t come and go without the Poms whipping themselves into a lather over Andy Murray’s chances. It’s not as futile as in Tim Henman’s day, when their man simply wasn’t in the hunt – Murray is definitely good enough to win a Grand Slam. But where Nadal and Federer have shown themselves to be more than equal to the biggest occasions. Indeed, the big stage brings out the best in them. Murray, on the other hand, has been guilty of going into his shell when it counts most, playing too defensively, too cautiously, in the hope his opponent will beat himself. When Federer or Nadal is on the other side of the net, that is a recipe for serial disappointment.
What about Sammy?
Australia needs a win. And, for several decades, women’s tennis looked the last place they would get it from. Sure, Jelena Dokic showed promise before her Damir-induced meltdown and there were high hopes for Alicia Molik before injury intervened. But in Samantha Stosur, Australia has its best chance of a female Grand Slam winner since the days of Evonne Goolagong. The women’s game is in a lull, highlighted by the ongoing dominance of the Williams sisters and returning veteran Kim Clijsters. This could well be Sammy Stosur’s year, and there would be no better place to get the ball rolling than in front of an adoring home crowd.